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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Human Rights and Dignity: In between Morality and Culture

  • Author(s): Besirevic, Zinaida
  • Advisor(s): Turiel, Elliot
  • et al.

This study explored how adolescents (aged 13 to 17) and young adults (aged 18 to 25) reason about the concepts of human rights and human dignity in the abstract, how they judge and justify different types of human rights violations in real-life contexts, and what systems of satisfaction of justice they endorse. Two countries were compared: Turkey and Bosnia, both secular, liberal democracies, but also the only European countries with a Muslim majority population, and both divided by conflict. Based on the data from 98 in-depth clinical interviews with randomly selected participants, 44 in each country, four dimensions of comparison were analyzed:

1) differences between reasoning in the abstract versus reasoning about specific contexts;

2) differences in reasoning related to age;

3) differences in reasoning related to country;

4) differences in reasoning about different types of rights violations.

Participants were first asked straightforward questions about their conceptualization of human rights, and the principles thereof, as well as the relationship of rights to human dignity. Next, they were asked to provide judgment and the underlying reasoning about four real-life situations of human rights violations, including, torture prisoners suspected of terrorism; discrimination of women who wear a headscarf; the unprotected labour of undocumented workers; and the segregation of the Roma ethnic minorities.

Qualitative coding categorized the participant's justification responses into three cognitive domains of reasoning: the moral, the social-conventional and the personal. Quantitative analysis in R included fitting multivariate logistic regression models adjusted for within-subject design, in combination with linear regression analysis and Chi-squared analyses where necessary. The analysis measured the likelihood of positive, negative or indecisive judgment, as well as the likelihood of domain-based justifications. Fixed effects were age, country, and the type of human rights violation. The findings showed that reasoning about human rights was predominantly within the moral domain, and that reasoning within specific contexts involved a different and more multifaceted process to reasoning in the abstract. Age-related differences were situation-specific, indicating that the development of moral reasoning can be impacted by one's experiences of the social environment. Country related differences in judgments and justification were due to different prioritization of concerns in different countries. The participants defined dignity mostly as a moral concept and were more likely to connect it to human rights when they reasoned within contexts rather than in the abstract. Judgments about restorative or retributive punishment were different and related to age, country and type of violation. These findings show how reasoning about rights, dignity and satisfaction of justice are impacted by age, culture and the type of rights violation.

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